Experiencing the Joy of Generosity

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, March 21, 2021
John 12:20-33

    Do any of you like to garden? Or keep indoor house plants at least?  Before Rich and I had kids, we would plant at least a small vegetable garden every year – tomatoes, peas, peppers, green beans, lettuce, sometimes potatoes and other more exotic vegetables.  I never have been very good at gardening or done much flower planting, and we’re in the season of our lives where our focus is on growing kids rather than plants.  But as we officially started spring yesterday, as the days are warming and longer, I think about the joy of getting in the garden and planting, getting my hands dirty, poking those seeds or seedlings in holes in the earth, watering, waiting, watching for something to grow.  It is truly a miracle to think how God designed a tiny seed to grow into all kinds of beautiful plants.
    In the gospel passage we had this morning from John, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, and in the next chapters, he will be celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples and preparing to go to the cross to die.  He tells the disciples, who were mostly rural folks who understood a thing or two about farming, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  It’s a simple lesson that I think even we city kids without much gardening experience can understand:  if you don’t plant the seed, it won’t grow.  From a single seed of wheat, for example, you can get a stalk with several more grains of wheat – planting seeds ultimately produces more seeds.  But if you just keep it in your pocket, or in a packet in the garage, it’ll just be a single seed.  Interestingly, I learned that some seeds, like wheat, if stored in the proper temperature and dry environment, can last hundreds of years and still be planted!  But the percentage chance that old seeds will grow and bear fruit goes down year after year – it’s best to plant fresh seeds when the time is right for planting, rather than hold onto seeds for years.
    Whether we like gardening or not, today our scripture readings call us to do some spiritual spring cleaning.  What are we holding onto that Jesus is asking us to let go of?  What needs to “die,” so to speak, so that God’s promise of new life in Christ might truly take hold in our hearts and bear fruit?  For some of us, letting go of perfectionism is a constant spiritual practice.  We need to die to our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.  We hear this message clearly in Jeremiah’s words to us this morning.  We are no different than the people of Israel.  We, too, break the covenant of the ten commandments, as we recalled a few weeks ago, even when we strive to follow them perfectly.  And yet the promise from God to us that God forgives our sins, our imperfections, and remembers our sins no more…that God’s love for us as imperfect people is written on our hearts.  Can we let the impulse to control everything and everyone around us die to let God be more in control?
    Others of us may need to let go of people pleasing – allowing other people around us define our worth and value rather than listening to God’s true words of love and grace for us.  Maybe we are realizing (painfully) that we still need to let go of making future plans because of the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic.  Or hurts we have from broken relationships.  Or a particular bad habit or addiction we’d like to break.  The list of things Jesus calls us to let die in us can be pretty long.  We can’t possibly give up everything we’re struggling with all at once.  We are God’s work in progress.  
As we move to the central story of our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection next week, we remember with thanksgiving that Jesus dies for us so we don’t have to.  We are not God, we are not Jesus, and we can’t be.  This is precisely the point.  The more we can give over to God, the more our lives rooted in Christ are able to bear good fruit.  Let’s hold onto the image of letting go of these seeds of perfectionism, people-pleasing, frustration, unrealistic expectations, hurt, anger, and so on and planting those seeds in the ground so that God can turn them into something beautiful – to grow fruit in us of joy, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, love.  God can do great things with the things we entrust to his care. And what may be even more miraculous, is that God entrusts us to do great things with the things from God he has entrusted to OUR care!
    I have appreciated our stewardship theme this year, “Experiencing the Joy of Generosity” in helping us think about stewardship differently – with the focus on joyful, generous living rather than a guilty list of SHOULDS.  Talking about stewardship can easily make people feel guilty about what more they SHOULD do.  We are trying to make the point that generous living starts by recognizing all that God has done for us.  It strikes me that another thing Jesus may be asking us to let go of is a scarcity mindset.  From the beginning of the pandemic, people hoarded toilet paper and cleared shelves of hand sanitizer and now started jumping the line to get vaccinated because we live with a mentality that there isn’t enough.  We don’t give generously of our time or financial resources because we think we don’t have enough – “I’m too busy.”  “Money’s too tight right now.”  We put ourselves first because we think we can’t possibly take care of others and invest in a relationship with God if we’re not alright.  Instead, the Christian gospel calls all people to stop trying get everything right about ourselves first, because we never will. In response to Jesus’ call to willing to lose our lives, we seek to give our imperfect, sinful lives over to God.  When we stop holding onto those things tightly and let go, scattering the seeds and seeing what might pop up, that’s when true transformation of the heart starts.
    I hope you have heard in these powerful promises from God to us in the Old and New Testaments that God never operates with a scarcity mindset with us.  The gifts God gives us are not limited in supply.  They are things we can keep and yet give away at the same time.  In God, we always have enough love, enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough thankfulness, enough hope. These good gifts don’t run out.  Opening ourselves up to generosity is realizing first that we have received more than we originally thought.  God has given us an abundance of seeds to be planted.  And because we have received more than we can ever give…we have more to give than we may think at first, too.  We have had several of our members beautifully describe why being a part of this church is important to them so that they WANT to give back their time, their talents, and their money to support our ministries.  We have already received so much from God to share.  When we get to work planting, giving away what God has given us, we’ll find we not only still have what we’ve been given, but God blesses us with even more – more love, more generosity, more joy.  So let it go, and see what God does to grow the seeds of our generosity.  Amen.